WHERE TO GO
Theres little to be gained in trying to rush round the Highlands and Islands. Travelling in these parts is time-consuming: distances on land are greater than elsewhere in Britain (and there are no motorways), while getting to the islands means co-ordinating with ferry or plane timetables and hoping the weather doesnt intervene and spoil your plans. Having said that, the journeys themselves by spectacular train lines, small aircraft scudding over tiny islands, inter-island ferries or winding, scenic roads are often memorable.
The most accessible parts of the region are not far at all from Glasgow and Edinburgh: you can be by the banks of Loch Lomond in less than thirty minutes from the former, or use the fast roads and train lines north from the latter to be in Highland Perthshire in a little over an hour. As a result, Loch Lomond and the neighbouring hills and wooded glens of the Trossachs tend to be busier than other parts of the Highlands, and to escape the day-trippers you need to head further north into Perthshire and the Grampian hills of Angus and Deeside where the Scottish Highland scenery is at its richest, with colourful woodlands and long glens rising up to distinctive mountain peaks. South of Inverness the mighty Cairngorm massif hints at the raw wilderness Scotland can still provide, most memorably in the lonely north and western Highlands. To get to the far north youll have to cross the Great Glen, an ancient geological fissure which cuts right across the country from Ben Nevis to !
Loch Ness, a moody stretch of water rather choked with tourists hoping for a glimpse of its monster. Meanwhile, the area with arguably the most memorable scenery of all is the jagged west coast, stretching from Argyll all the way north to Wester Ross and the looming hills of Assynt.
For all the grand splendour of the Highlands, the islands scattered like jigsaw pieces off the west and north coasts are an essential complement. Assorted in size, flavour and accessibility, the long chain of rocky Hebrides which necklace Scotlands Atlantic shoreline include Mull and the nearby pilgrimage centre of Iona; Islay and Jura, famous for their wildlife and whisky; Skye, the most-visited of the Hebrides, where the snow-tipped Cuillin ridge rises up from the sea; and the Western Isles, an elongated archipelago that is the last bastion of Gaelic language and culture. Off the north coast, Orkney and Shetland, both with a rich Norse heritage, differ not only from each other, but also quite distinctly from mainland Scotland in dialect and culture far-flung islands buffeted by wind and sea that offer some of the countrys wildest scenery, finest bird-watching and best archeological sites.
WHEN TO GO
The weather is probably the single biggest factor to put you off visiting the Highlands and Islands. Its not so much that the weathers always bad, its just that it is unpredictable and changeable: in the islands they say you can experience four seasons in one day. Even if the weathers not necessarily good, its generally interesting, exhilarating, dramatic and certainly photogenic well suited, in fact, to the landscapes over which it plays such an important role.
The summer months of June, July and August are regarded as high season, with local school holidays making July and early August the busiest period. However, the weather at this time is, at best, variable, but the days are generally mild or warm and, most importantly, long, with daylight lingering until 9pm or later. In the far north of the mainland and on the Orkney and Shetland islands darkness hardly falls during midsummer. In August, events such as Highland Games, folk festivals or sporting events most of which take place in the summer months can tie up accommodation, though normally only in a fairly concentrated local area. The warmer weather does have its drawbacks, however most significantly, the clouds of midges, tiny biting insects which frequently appear around dusk, dawn and in dank conditions, and can drive even the most committed outdoors type scurrying indoors.
Commonly, May and September throw up weather every bit as good as, if not better than, the months of high summer. Youre less likely to encounter crowds or struggle to find somewhere to stay, and the mild temperatures combined with the changing colours of nature mean both are great for outdoor activities, particularly hiking. May is also a good month for watching nesting seabirds; September, however, is stalking season for deer, which can disrupt access to the countryside.
The months of April and October bracket the season for many parts of rural Scotland. A large number of attractions, tourist offices and guesthouses often open for business on Easter weekend in April and shut up shop after the school half-term in mid-October. If places do stay open through the winter its normally with reduced opening hours; the OctoberMarch period is also the best time to pick up special offers at hotels and guesthouses. Note too that in more remote spots public transport will often operate on a reduced winter timetable.
Winter days, from November through to March, occasionally crisp and bright, are more often cold, gloomy and all too brief, although Hogmanay and New Year has traditionally been a time to visit Scotland for partying and warm hospitality something which improves as the weather worsens. On a clear night in winter visitors in the far north of the mainland and the Orkney and Shetland islands might be treated to a celestial display from the aurora borealis, while a fall of snow in the Highlands will prompt plenty of activity around the ski resorts.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.